Learning Where You Are The Experience of Place Based Education

Where are you? Who are you? How does where you are affect who you are? Place based education is interested in examining these questions.

Steve Glazer
1 January 1999

Where are you? Who are you? How does where you are affect who you are? Place based education is interested in examining these questions.  Place based education is interested in a deep experiential inquiry into who and where we are, and the relationship between the two.

Earlier this year, public school students in the Patagonia, Arizona Elementary School got a taste of place based education. Every Monday morning, Mrs. Gail Greenleaf’s fifth grade class was dropped off not at the school, but at The Place at Harshaw Creek, a privately held ranch three miles outside of town, where they got a day-long immersion in place based education. It was my pleasure, along with other Living Education staff, to work with Mrs. Greenleaf and her students.

Loaded down with water bottles, field journals and brown bag lunches, the students boarded the bright yellow school bus at 9:00 am. The bus drove downhill, turned right, and made its way out of town along Harshaw Creek Road, following the dry wash up and out, towards the San Rafael Valley and the old Mexican border crossing at Lochiel.

Very quickly, the bus was swallowed by the high desert landscape. Waist-high tufts of sacaton grass, bright green cholla (looks like Gumby) and prickly pear (among “ouchies” of infinite variety). Brilliant sunlight breaking through the leafless canopy of the mesquite bosque. Bleached stalks of agave and sotol piercing the cloudless blue sky. Straw arrows pointing to heaven. Circling buzzards taking it all in.

The bus would slow to gently pass the Longhorns ranging on the shoulder of the road. Minutes later, filled with excitement and anticipation of the day’s activities, students disembarked at a school without walls.

Each visit began with questions and observations. What was the same? What had changed since their last visit? Students examined three trees—a mesquite, a sycamore and a pear tree—and made journal entries recording noticeable changes. Students recorded the day’s temperature, checked the rain gauge, and measured the positions of the sun and moon in the sky overhead.

Then students broke into two groups for meandering hikes lasting an hour and a half. One group might follow an animal trail through the National Forest, while another traced a dry wash to its terminus. Along the way, students would engage in a wide array of experiential exercises: scavenger hunts, sitting alone in silence, making lists of observations (“Notice what you notice”—Ginsberg), composing poems; making field notes, sketching from nature, and role-playing. (Be a cholla! Be an eagle!)
After the morning hikes, we held one hour “classes” in place-based education. Sessions might be spent sound mapping; symbol mapping; making micro habitats; collecting, grinding and eating mesquite beans; examining animals’ homes; digging local clay to make coil pots; finding and grinding pigments for painting; harvesting and weaving native grasses; learning to flint knap, or to throw atl-atls.

After lunch, we broke into three groups to work on student-generated projects. Not surprisingly, the students were most interested in the ancient Hohokam culture, for Hohokam lived along what is now called Harshaw Creek from approximately 900-1400 c.e. The three projects chosen were Hohokam homes, Hohokam neighbors, and Hohokam daily life.

During the course of the project period, the “homes” group actually designed and constructed a scale-model pit house, large enough to hold five students. The “neighbors” group created a field guide to local wild life, and the “daily life” group gathered local edibles and medicinals, made clay figurines and shell ornaments, and needle and thread from agave and horse hair.

Over the dozen weeks of the program, students got to know this 66-acre piece of earth intimately. They now carry with them the living wisdom of this place: Here is where you can find crystals. Here is where the bat cave is. This is a pack rat den. Be careful lifting up that rock scorpion in the high desert! It’s snowing—no, it’s the cottonwoods! This is where the ancient grinding holes are. Here is where we find pottery, manos, metates. This is when it gets really hot—and here’s how to keep cool.

Children—some of whom at first were reluctant even to be outside—learned to find comfort and knowledge in the bare facts of the high desert. Over the three months, they learned not only the names, but also the faces and the characteristics of their sentient and insentient neighbours.

Gary Snyder, in his Pulitzer Prize-winning collection Turtle Island, has a poem called “For The Children.” The final lines of the poem are:

stay together
learn the flowers
go light

I believe that these words—and recommendations for our children—are timely. We need to teach our children who they are, where they are and how to live.

In this regard, this pilot project was only a beginning. The fifth graders are more acquainted with where they are, yet they are just beginning their journey towards understanding Patagonia’s natural environment and community history, the elements and forces that help to shape who they are, and who they will ultimately become.

Steve Glazer

Steve Glazer has been an elementary educator, arts administrator, and school director. He is the author of The Heart of Learning: Spirituality in Education (Tarcher/Putnam, 1999).